Despite the System: Orson Welles Versus the Hollywood System by Clinton Heylin (2005)
Despite the System: Orson Welles Versus the Hollywood Studios
By Clinton Heylin (2005)

Orson Welles was one of the great cinematic figures of the 20th century. His first film Citizen Kane would be a financial flop, but a critical success. Now, generally regarded as one of the greatest films ever made, it’s certainly one of the most innovative. But instead of reaping the creative rewards of his masterpiece, Welles was consistently wrong-footed and undermined by the studio system. Producers and executives interfered with his work, denying him final edits. Films were cut to pieces while Welles was left writing memos on how he wanted a particular scene edited. Advice that was generally ignored unless it had a cost-cutting benefit.

When Orson Welles came to Hollywood, he had a reputation as a boy wonder. He was twenty-five when he directed his first film, Citizen Kane. He’d never worked in film before. Nevertheless, he was given the opportunity to act, direct, and have the final cut.

His background was in theatre, particularly the Mercury Theatre he’d set up in New York. With them, he’d made War of the Worlds for radio. The broadcast, partly dramatised as a series of news reports, caused panic. Some listeners thought the Martian invasion was real. The War of the Worlds broadcast is now part of the Welles mythology. It belongs to the trickster side of his personality. He was something of a magician and had a genuine interest in magic tricks, and their cinematic counterparts. But he also once said that a film studio was the greatest train set a boy could have.

There’s a photographic portrait of Welles taken in 1946 by Irving Penn: Portrait with Symbols. A young Welles in black suit and bow tie stands, one foot resting on a low table, cigar in hand. On the table are a collection of objects, including a train set, a magician’s hat, a crow, a box camera, a gramophone, a decanter of port, a French horn, a hoop, and a stick of dynamite. (Another Penn portrait of Dorothy Parker, also titled Portrait with Symbols includes a bunch of lemons, a sax, a carving knife, a syringe, a corkscrew, and a sign that reads Black Eye Specialist.)

By the time of Penn’s photograph, Welles’ career in Hollywood was on the downward slide. After Citizen Kane, he never again had the same power and control. In time, as he grew older and appeared in cameo roles and ads, he was often regarded as a failure. He was still admired in Europe. But in Hollywood, his failure was laid at his own door, at his inability to work within the studio system.

Despite the System: Orson Welles Versus the Hollywood Studios is not a biography of Welles. Instead, it’s an examination of his films as a director, particularly within the Hollywood studios. By examining memos, cables, and other documentation, Clinton Heylin challenges the myth of Welles as a failed genius, or as a man who only had himself to blame. As Heylin illustrates, while Welles did not have a business mind, and Hollywood was above all a business, his problems lay with the power of the producers and executives.

Welles was an auteur and wanted full control of his own productions, including the final edit. But his filmmaking methods, his dark and baroque vision, and his tendency to constantly rewrite scripts and make last-minute changes, left risk-averse producers nervous.

Welles was constantly open to new ideas and inspirations. He was a perfectionist who understood the importance of the soundtrack and sound effects – something Hollywood had not exploited. He was also prone to running over schedule and over budget. In time, he would learn from some of these mistakes. But Hollywood became more and more reluctant to back his ideas. There were people within the studios who recognised genius when they saw it. But they feared the public wouldn’t understand or appreciate it. Welles despaired of the tendency to treat the public like children.

The procedure of test viewings didn’t help his work either. If an audience failed to appreciate a film, or laughed inappropriately, the film was sent back to be butchered again. As Heylin points out, test audiences were often there to see a completely different kind of film and were not a good sample of the public. But even some of those supposedly bad screenings actually went down better than we’ve been led to believe.

In the case of The Magnificent Ambersons, a test screening in Pomona was seen as a complete disaster. A studio executive wrote a letter afterward, saying “in my twenty-eight years in the business, I have never been present in a theatre where audiences acted in such a manner. They laughed at the wrong places, talked at the picture, (even) kidded it… I don’t have to tell you how I suffered, especially in the realization that we have over a million dollars tied up.” 

But Jonathan Rosenbaum, writing later in Movie Wars, saw most of the 125 audience response cards. 53 were positive, “some of them outright raves” calling the film a masterpiece.

Unfortunately, the executives didn’t agree. They only cared for their investment. Changes at the top of RKO didn’t help matters.

Welles was in Brazil at the time. He wanted to make a film there and in Mexico. But after shooting the Carnival and other footage, the project ran aground. His foray into thriller territory, which might have looked more commercially promising to the studios, also ran into trouble. Welles’s own descriptions of scenes show just how innovative and imaginative he was. But these things cost time and money. And, as always, his films were butchered in the editing process while he was frozen out.

As he himself noted about the Hollywood system, “a genuine individual is an outright nuisance in a factory.”

In Europe, he had a better reputation, and it was to Europe that he went to continue directing. He wanted to work as an independent. Acting was a way to pay the bills or fund a film. His screen presence meant that he could command a large salary even for a cameo role. Other than Citizen Kane, the film he’s best remembered for is The Third Man. Yet, according to Heylin, Welles was never that interested in the film that would immortalise him as Harry Lime.

Hard as it is to believe, Welles only appears for about ten minutes. Nevertheless, his performance and presence tower over the film. The speech he gives on the Ferris wheel is iconic. Harry Lime would be a character he’d return to in a series of BBC radio broadcasts. But Welles was at heart a director.

One of his secretaries remembers him during one period as seeming very alone. Since Heylin’s book does not deal with Welles’s private life, readers need to look elsewhere to fill in those spaces.

However, Heylin does have some contempt for some of Welles’ biographers, with Simon Callow, in particular, getting some flak. Heylin is such an enthusiastic defender of Welles that he can’t resist bitchy asides about other writers. This is particularly noticeable at the beginning of his book and is somewhat distracting.

On the whole, though, Heylin does a good job digging up evidence that supports much of what Welles himself claimed. There’s a quote from Peter Bogdanovich on the back of Heylin’s book that highlights the importance of Despite the System: “This is the book Orson Welles always hoped for: one that would, as he put it, ‘set the record straight’.”

I wrote this review in 2005. The book may be out of print and only available from used book dealers. But it’s an invaluable exploration of Welles’ problems with the studios.